(Photo by Don Kadair)
Name: Jenni Peters
Position: Owner, Varsity Sports in Baton Rouge, Mandeville and New Orleans
Hometown: Baton Rouge
Education: Master’s in marketing/business from LSU
Back in 2000, Jenni Peters rounded up some $100,000 from investors in two weeks after convincing them to help her open a running apparel store near the Perkins Road overpass. Today, Varsity Sports is a multimillion-dollar business with locations in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Mandeville. Peters pulled it all off with determination, a strong marketing acumen and, as she puts it, “a lot of friends who believed in me.” Peters’ store stands out in what is becoming a growing and crowded market, particularly with the rise of online retailers. The key, Peters says, is all about client relationships. “We understand that we are building a relationship, not just selling a shoe,” she says.
Where did your career start, and how did that previous experience prepare you for your current position?
I had a graduate teaching assistantship while getting my master’s at LSU. I just loved it. When I left graduate school I decided to try to run professionally for the Nike National team. I soon found it’s tough to try to travel and run as much as it takes to actually make a good living in road racing. But it was fun, so I was able to go back to LSU and teach part-time as an instructor while competing. Well, the part-time teaching job evolved into a full-time job at LSU for 25 years in the marketing department. Twenty-five years of studying and teaching trends in marketing has to be invaluable to a person going out into the actual business world. But truthfully, the real value of my teaching all those years at LSU has been the students I taught and came to know. Many have gone on to very successful business leaders. The have been in and out of my life as they have grown in business and in life. I think I come in contact with a former student weekly—if not daily oftentimes.
You used to be director of marketing for LSU Athletics for seven years. How did that experience prepare you to open your own store?
In my first year at LSU Athletics, (former LSU baseball) Coach (Skip) Bertman made it clear that my job was to raise the level of awareness and attendance for the women’s sports. That was back in 2001, and the marketing budgets were nowhere near what they are today. So I had to do a lot with a little. Developing relationships and grassroots marketing were the foundation of making a difference with the lesser-known LSU sports. And that parallels every day for Varsity Sports.
The story goes that back in 2000, you raised $100,000 in two weeks to start your first Varsity Sports store. How did you pull that off, and how did you turn it into a multimillion-dollar business?
I had a lot of friends who believed in me.
What have been some of the unexpected challenges in your position?
Understanding the various personalities of stores in three different markets. It’s like having kids that are totally different—what worked for raising the first one is entirely different for the second and third.
How have you separated Varsity Sports from other competition in the industry?
That we are willing to give back as much as we ask for. We understand that we are building a relationship, not just selling a shoe.
What is your favorite part about what you do? What makes you excited about going to work?
The most cliché of workplace sayings: it’s not work when you love what you do. And all the stores and my own office feel like a place you would just want to hang out.
What is the greatest personal or professional obstacle you’ve overcome, and how did you overcome it?
I am not a detail-oriented business person. I hire great people who are.
What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
Having three careers in a lifetime that I have loved—college teaching, LSU Athletics and owning my own running stores.
What are your goals for your company?
The specialty running industry and channel are going through some big changes ahead. The specialty store channel is shrinking at the expense of “one click, two-day ship to my door” mentalities. We have to stay relevant to our customers.
You’ve got stores in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Mandeville now. Any plans for even more expansion?
No, sir—but I never say “never.”
With your business growing so much, how do you still find time to run?
The business of running stores certainly enables my long-term love of running. The Varsity Running groups keep me on my toes … literally.
What other leadership roles do you hold in the community and/or what volunteer efforts do you support?
I am involved in anything and everything people ask me to do to make Baton Rouge a better community.
Is the running community still growing in Baton Rouge?
Yes, it really is. And it’s so diverse and has mutually supportive groups. There’s us, Happy’s Running Club, Girls on the Run, Black Girls Run BR, BR Tri, Rocketkidz, 4D Racing and more. We all play well together.
What is a great piece of advice you have personally received?
Don’t open a running store in Baton Rouge. It will never work.
What gets your workday off to a good start?
A cup of coffee? I am not a daybreak runner except on Wednesday.
What do you do to unwind?
I am pretty unwound at the end of the day. But I love a good glass of wine after a run.
What is an item on your “bucket list”?
I am not sure I have one. I enjoy so many things, but I just go ahead and do them. I went to the Masters golf tournament this year and absolutely loved it.
Where is your go-to spot in Baton Rouge during your free time?
It would have to be the lakes … naturally.